A Random A-Z of Film Themes: D Is for Dinner
D Is for Dinner
‘Man was not intended to live like a bear or hermit … Man was born for sociability and finds his true delight in society.’ So begins Cecil B. Hartley in his guide to good manners, grandly titled The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette: Being a Complete Guide for a Gentleman’s Conduct in All His Relations Towards Society. During a random web search, I stumbled on Hartley’s monograph, along with a companion piece written by one Florence Hartley and called The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette. Whether Florence was his wife, his sister or even, perhaps, Cecil himself trying to corner the etiquette market, I do not know. But in any case, both these texts have been a massive help in the preparation of this short dinner-themed blog post.
Both books were first published in 1873, and, you may ask, why would Victorian tracts on gentlemen’s decorum and ladies’ carriage be of any use today? If you are asking this then, with all due respect, you are grossly ill-informed. Indeed, I would suggest that you, as Mr. Hartley would put it, ‘evince a shocking want of good breeding’. I shall not be inviting you to dinner again. Please read no further.
Now, with the oafs and oiks banished, you, dear reader, and I can talk plainly. I do not need to tell you that etiquette is back with a vengeance. The internet has reinvigorated the need for good manners. Nowadays, and contrary to Hartley’s pronouncements, we can live like hermits, hunched in front of our computer screens, yet still be in need of excellent social skills. You will likely have read the ‘net manners’ newspaper articles, blogs and websites, all dedicated to ironing out the wrinkles of online social interaction and furnishing us with a little techno-politesse. You will be well aware that one’s first tweet is the modern equivalent of a young lady’s coming out into society, and will duly give it all the care and attention befitting a pretty debutante. You would not shamelessly promote your blog on a VIP’s Twitter account (as I saw one man do on film critic Peter Bradshaw’s) but would have mastered the art of ingratiation – a subtle homage here, a judicious ‘thumbs-up’ there. Of course, you wish to be popular, to be liked; who can begrudge anyone that desire? Yet you accept with all humility, as would Jane Austen had she been around to survey the current state of affairs, that there are too many tweeters in this world who have large followings and, quite frankly, don’t fucking deserve them; why make things worse? Or something like that.
Sir, Madam, you are a credit to the digital age, and it is not to you that I direct what follows. Rather, it is to those who, under cover of anonymity, assault our delicate eyes and ears with insults, arguments and all manner of other hanky-panky. Much has already been written about these scoundrels. To give but two examples, there is a call for internet etiquette to be taught in schools, and a recent blog has offered a short guide to conducting a polite online argument. But what about transferring online chivalry into everyday life? It is my hope that the immense import placed on etiquette on the internet will soon spread to every facet of society. Who knows, we may be standing on the cusp of a new era; or an old era – a return to the Victorian ceremony of yore. With the assistance of Cecil and Florence Hartley, and a selection of motion pictures, I hope that these few words might begin to usher in such an era, instructing the socially inept and ignorant in the ways of that most ceremonial event: dinnertime.
It is easy to sort the well-bred from the vulgar at the dinner table. Before even the first dish is served, a gentleman or lady will be playing her part with panache. Preliminary conversations are of the utmost importance. One should never shout across the table, but nor should one whisper. As Mr. Hartley puts it, ‘Converse in a low tone to your neighbour, yet not with any air of secrecy.’ Dinnertime is not an occasion for amateur theatrics or for clandestine relations. A well-conducted preliminary conversation can be found in this scene from Sliver (1993).
Having watched that impressive set-piece from the 1990s erotic thriller, let us first note how William Baldwin and Sharon Stone find perfect balance between the intimate and the social. There is no sense of exhibitionism in their performance; they do not expect, nor attempt to induce, others to watch, let alone partake in, their ‘game of poker’. Yet, fellow patrons certainly do not feel excluded (witness the elderly couple and the waiter).
‘What about the panties?’
‘Yes, the panties.’
Observe the delicate cadences of each character’s speech: the gentleness with which Baldwin enquires after Stone’s choice of apparel; her soft reply and elegant revelation. ‘Remember that a favour becomes doubly valuable if granted with courtesy’, informs Ms. Hartley. Sharon Stone is nothing if not the pattern of all courtesy, removing said panties for the approval of her gentleman suitor. Of course, what follows this scene – the intense sex session back at Stone’s apartment – may be pushing the bounds with regard to acceptable post-meal discourse. Mr. Hartley’s call to always ‘watch that the lady whom you escorted to the table is well helped’ has, perhaps, been slightly misunderstood. Nevertheless, Stone and Baldwin are adequate, if not exceptional, demonstrators of correct deportment at the dinner table. Be intimate, by all means, but never secretive. If the panties are to be removed, then let the act be performed in the spirit of conviviality, not exclusivity: ‘Avoid any air of mystery when speaking to those next to you; it is ill-bred and in excessively bad taste’ (C.B. Hartley).
When dinner is served, one must defer to certain long-established conventions. ‘No dish should be carved upon the table, and that no guest should wait too long for his meat, you must engage a rapid and dextrous carver,’ writes Ms. Hartley. This scene from the crime thriller Hannibal exemplifies what it means to be a ‘good host’. Note how Anthony Hopkins engages his guests in conversation, even while carving the meat (away from the table, of course). A good host or hostess must have the wit and intelligence to stimulate conversation while at the same time ensuring every part of the dinner goes according to plan. I will not rehearse the age-old debate as to whether red or white wine best suits a meal of fried brains, but I will gently scold Clarise Starling (Jodie Foster) for her performance in this scene. She looks like she has had rather too much – ‘Never drink of more than one wine, and partake of that sparingly’ (C.B. Hartley). Furthermore,Hopkins does, unfortunately, make the schoolboy error of serving the gentleman before the lady. But given this dish’s somewhat unappetising exterior he is perhaps just being a little over-chivalrous. As Mr. Hartley advises, ‘It is surely better to err on the right than on the wrong side of good breeding’.
Every dinner table has its own little rules and conventions which you should go out of your way to abide by. One should, as Hartley notes, ‘try to pay respect to such whims at the table of others’. For example, if you are invited to dinner with the family from Dogtooth (2009), be prepared to learn a new mealtime vocabulary. Ma and Pa Dogtooth take quite a protective approach toward parenting: they do not let the children leave the house. In fact, from birth, these children have been shielded from all contact with the outside world. As far as they are concerned, ‘the sea’ refers to an armchair, aeroplanes are tiny plastic things that drop in their garden, and so forth. If you wish to be passed the salt during dinner, you must ask for the ‘telephone’.
Never make a host or hostess feel that you do not appreciate the effort they have made for your entertainment. The girl in this scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) reveals her lack of good breeding by screaming at her hosts. A scream is an unnecessarily excessive rebuttal; if you do not wish to partake of a particular dish then a firm but gentle refusal is sufficient: ‘If a dish is distasteful to you, decline it, but make no remarks about it.’ I myself would question this family’s over-reliance on the chainsaw as method of carving. However, it would be in extremely bad taste to do so in their presence and, so long as they did not eat with the chainsaw as well – as Mr. Hartley reminds us, ‘a gentleman never eats with his knife’ – I would let it pass as a harmless, if idiosyncratic, means of slicing through gristle.
For a guide on how not to do dinner, you could try The War of the Roses (1989). Harsh words and urinating on fish do not make for a pleasant evening in company. This film is, however, an excellent reminder that the smallest act – an ill-advised comment to the table, a strained facial expression during dessert – can lead to dinner party chaos. Work on the small things and avoid the massive cock-ups: this is the lesson provided by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.
Similarly, and for all the film’s culinary lushness, I do not find the guests invited to Babette’s Feast (1987) particularly well mannered (apologies for the dubbed version; I couldn’t find it online with subtitles). Watching this film the other day, I suddenly realised how much I was sweating during the prolonged ‘feast scene’. Perhaps I’m just a food fetishist, but its sensuality hits me where Nick Cage gets hit after he’s had a steak in Moonstruck (1987). Babette (Stéphane Audran) delicately crafting each tiny dish, the thick juices pouring from General Löwenhielm’s (Jarl Kulle’s) lips as he munches on chicken carcasses and spinach pancakes – it’s pure sex. Ah, but sadly, it’s rather bad manners. One sees bits of meat on beards, wine-tainted lips, full mouths attempting to converse and chew simultaneously. What is more, only the General deigns to compliment the chef. Everyone else simply bangs on about the weather and God and things far less important than food (during the meal, anyway).
This film is not, however, without its instructive capacity, for Babette is nothing if not a superb hostess, and is fully in command of the codes and conventions associated with gourmet dining. Her baking, her sauces, her wine choices: all reveal a person intent on impressing her guests. And is this not what, after all, dinner is all about? Giving the maximum pleasure to friends, family, hostages, bloodstained teenagers – whoever you have chosen to grace your table.
I have no doubt that if you invited me to dinner your first desire would be to impress. You would hang the expense. Babette spends her entire inheritance – ten thousand francs when that was a lot of money – on ingredients for her guests. When asked why, and reminded that she will now be ‘poor forever’, Babette replies: ‘An artist is never poor.’ This might sound like the kind of wanky reply we expect from only the most poncy of art films, but I really felt as if it was meant in this instance. And it’s not a bad lesson to take to the supermarket as you go to purchase ingredients for our dinner this weekend. An artist is never poor. I await my invitation with excitement.
Next up: E is for Economics. Good old dry, dull, numbery economics.
Alongside Mr. and Ms. Hartley, I would like to thank Seb Manley for adding much needed charm and dignity to my prose. Polite society has been much taken with Seb’s proofreading abilities of late. If the grapevine is to be believed, he and a Miss V______ have been spied painting apostrophes on one another in Earls Court. And apostrophes are but one of Seb’s many talents. If you’re writing non-fiction and want it to read clearly and grammatically, then check out Seb’s website: www.manley-editorial.com.